Time to Try Life on the Road? No, Say Longtime ‘Van Lifers’

Now that you may not be seeing your boss face-to-face until 2021, is it time to hit the road? Just you, the interstate, and your laptop? It can seem tempting. “We’re getting 10 to 25 inquiries a day, and people want a van right now,” says Benjamin Fraser, founder of Ready Set Van in Lambertville, N.J. “It’s absolute craziness.”

The company promises “luxury Manhattan apartments shrunk down to 70 square feet,” complete with air conditioning and other amenities that run off the batteries you’d find in Teslas. Fraser is currently taking orders for June 2021. Prices range from $68,000 to $112,000, including the van and buildout.

So is this the time to abandon city life? We spoke with three longtime “van lifers” who say it’s not. The pandemic has created so many difficulties that all three were off the road when we talked. Here’s why:

Life outside the van is limited. Lots of public lands, campgrounds, and RV parks are restricted or closed, as are the libraries, coffee shops, and coworking spaces that make this kind of life easier. “Now is a really bad time to do it,” says John Frigo, search engine optimization lead at Best Price Nutrition, who vanned around the country after selling a company two years ago. He says the gym chains that many van dwellers belong to for showering and exercise are either closed or have shuttered their shower facilities.

Locals may not be thrilled. “I was on the road when all this started, and pretty much every community I saw out West was not super thrilled about van lifers hanging out,” says Allie Dyer Bluemel, a technical content marketer who spent time in California, Colorado, Nevada, and Utah. Residents, she says, “don’t know where you’re traveling from, and your ability to quarantine without having to rely on local resources is not great.”

Tina Willis, an Orlando personal injury lawyer who frequently enjoys long stays at beach campgrounds with her husband, agrees. Van life requires frequent purchases of gas and perishables, not to mention interactions at truck stops, bathing facilities, and camping sites or RV parks. “There’s more risk than just staying home,” she says.

It’s pricey. “Van life is really hot right now, and prices are way up there,” says Kelly Beasley, co-founder of RV equipment review site CampAddict.com. Five-year-old vans worth about $25,000 (with their original seating) are being upgraded with a bed, cabinets, sink, and solar panels and put on the market for $55,000; in normal times, that work would not be worth anywhere near $30,000. Beasley, who has long lived on public lands in the western U.S., says, “If you’re doing campgrounds, it can be more expensive than rent or mortgage because of demand.”

It’s not for everyone. “Van life works a little better for people who are used to being spontaneous around the way they travel,” says Rob Novotny, chief excursion officer at Glampervan in San Francisco, which is taking orders for October. (A Glampervan will set you back $60,000-$95,000, including the cost of the vehicle.) Can you handle it? “If you’re used to structure and nothing changing,” he says, “it probably wouldn’t be a good idea.” Then again, what’s not changing these days?

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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